Love, Loss, and the Roots of Music

Jaron "Bear" Williams on a poster for the documentary "The Whole Gritty City."

Young percussionists stood in a circle around a fold-out plastic table, drumsticks flashing and table shaking as they struck in sync. The brass section sat in an arc, moving up the scale one slow, powerful step at a time. The room vibrated with the force of each note, with each beat of the drumsticks, ushered on by Derrick Tabb’s shouted instructions.

A few months later, parade-goers would feel the force of this music when these kids marched along the parade route, would laugh and cheer to the beat. But in this classroom, before the gaze of Derrick Tabb and the cameras and the crew of The Whole Gritty City documentary, the only thing these kids were moving and shaking were themselves.

These kids are a part of the Roots of Music, a non-profit organization that provides a musical education to black kids from low-income families, many of whom hail from some of New Orleans’ most dangerous neighborhoods.

“This is the neighborhood I don’t like. This is the street I don’t like, ‘cause it has guns,” said Roots of Music participant Jaron “Bear” Williams on his daily walk home, as recorded in The Whole Gritty City. At the time, Bear was a pre-teen, but the venom in his voice did not match his age. He had already lost his older brother to gun violence.

While the community documented in The Whole Gritty City was already deeply impacted by gun violence, New Orleans homicide rates have been on the rise ever since. 2013 recorded 156 homicides, and 2022 recorded a record 280. 78 people have been killed so far this year. And, as the rate of murders increases, so does the emotional toll taken on their families, friends, and communities. And as this emotional toll rises, so does the need for an emotional outlet.

The Roots of Music is a non-profit organization that provides a musical education to New Orleans children from low-income households, helping them to develop life skills, form a community, and emotionally band together amidst the violence plaguing New Orleans. This program was founded in 2007 by Derrick Tabb, snare drummer of the Rebirth Brass Band, and by Allison Reinhardt.

The Roots of Music runs three programs – Sprouts of Music, Roots Studio Academy, and the Marching Crusaders. Sprouts of Music teaches music to kindergarteners and first-graders, Roots Studio Academy provides an intensive 10-month program that teaches high schoolers how to run a music production business, and the Marching Crusaders – the first of these programs – “Bring[s] kids from all parts of the city to become one band,” said co-founder Derrick Tabb.

The Marching Crusaders program provides thousands of hours of musical education to low-income youth, in addition to academic tutoring, hot meals, transportation, and free instruments. The only requirements to join are that the participants live in New Orleans, qualify for free or reduced lunch, and are between the ages of 9 and 14. Kids of any level of musical experience are accepted.

Matt Sakakeeny, a Tulane professor and an anthropologist of music, is a founding member of the Roots of Music board. “I’ve been involved with Roots of Music since day one and I’ve stuck with them for 15 years or so because I really think that it’s rare in New Orleans to find an organization that provides a direct service to kids with such incredible outcomes. Through music education, Roots of Music gives kids the tools they need to prosper in New Orleans, whether they go on to be musicians or not,” said Sakakeeny.

Tabb, who grew up in the same dangerous neighborhoods as current Roots of Music participants, found inspiration in his junior high band director’s band program. Through this program, Tabb was given “The opportunity to be in a program where I got to watch my junior high band director turn into five different people – upper brass, lower brass, woodwind instructor, drum instructor, and disciplinarian. And I pretty much used to think that if he could save a kid, how many other kids could you save if you had five more of him?”

So, Tabb resolved to create his own band program to help kids growing up in similar situations to himself. However, Tabb wanted to make three major changes, based on what he had felt was lacking as a kid – transportation, food, and tutoring.

“I didn’t get free transportation, so I had to walk home. But I stayed in New Orleans, and New Orleans is a very painful city. So I got to see some very dangerous things, and things that I didn’t feel like a kid should have to see walking home from school. So transportation was a must. Food, because I was kind of greedy as a kid. I felt like we ate lunch at 12:30 at our school, we got out of school at 3:30, we got out of band practice at 5, 6 o’clock. I hadn’t eaten anything in all that time so I used to be like ‘You should have fed us.’ And last but not least is the tutoring component. Because I started failing because I didn’t want to do my homework. Because after band practice I was tired. I felt like they should have had time for us to do homework,” said Tabb.

Tabb also specifically wanted “Graduate students to come in and teach kids to inspire them to want to go to college.” 

“I knew 20 kids that could really have a good time and learn from this program. I started this program for 20 kids, and one of them had to go on a retreat. So he couldn’t make it to the program because he was going to be at camp. So I took the $1000 that I had set aside for him and I rented a bus that was going to pick up the kids every day for six weeks. And on the first day, it went out and picked up the kids and brought them to the first location and 42 kids got off the bus. And the following week, we had 65 kids that got off the bus. We had a little over 100 kids in the program after 3 weeks. So it was like the program just took to its feet and walked on its own.”

Now, Roots of Music has 130-150 participants, and Tabb projects that this number will grow to 250 next year.

A man playing the alto saxophone.

The Roots of Music’s immediate popularity stems from the importance of marching bands in New Orleans. Here, marching bands, particularly black marching bands, are the beating heart of Mardi Gras culture. “Every kid wants to be in the marching band because of Mardi Gras. Every kid wants to be a part of Mardi Gras. So, it was easy to attract kids. Just tell ‘em that they gonna be in the band,” said Tabb in the Roots of Music documentary.

The Roots of Music continues to feed into this popularity by teaching kids how to become a part of this marching band culture, how to become a part of this music. “Roots of Music gives young black boys and girls an understanding that their musical culture is valuable and something to be proud of,” says Sakakeeny.

“In music education in the United States, students are usually taught that Western art music or European classical music is what a musician should aspire to, but the Roots of Music and in black marching bands in the South, kids are taught that their culture is something valuable and to be proud of.”

Additionally, “They have mentors who come out of the same background that they do. The teachers at Roots of Music are men and women who are also black Americans, and also have faced the struggles that their students face. So there’s a connection there in terms of these adults who’ve survived and thrive being role models for the kids,” said Sakakeeny.

Participation in the Roots of Music also impacts kids’ personalities and work ethic. “I see lots of changes in kids. Different kids, different strokes for different folks. You have some kids that were very shy, and you find that they have an outgoing personality after being in the program for a while. More confidence in themselves. There are kids that are failing in school whose grades have changed, and they have significantly raised up their grades. You have kids that have behavioral problems in school that change and now they don’t have that problem,” Tabb said.

“You give kids the confidence to succeed and to do anything they want to do. Most kids start off in the program not knowing what they want to do. Obviously, a lot of self confidence is given to kids. First of all, discipline, self confidence, support, and love that is needed to get kids to really succeed. It’s amazing to really help kids.”

Additionally, Roots of Music is not confined to a single neighborhood, but takes in kids from all across the city. “We’re one of the only programs that takes kids from all across the city. Not just for one or two, we offer for 30 schools and just about all of Orleans parish. So, we bring all the kids together, as friends rather than enemies. And that helped bring families together.”

“Now, you have friendships that are built across the city, or people that live in the East. We have friends that now have friends Uptown because of kids building this program. It also helps to build a network, not just friendship, but network resources. Different parents, they’ve helped us reach out to different grants and stuff like that. It brings a whole community together.”

These cross-community friendships and support networks are especially important within a community deeply affected by trauma. “New Orleans is a very dangerous place to grow up, especially if you’re black and poor. Unfortunately, over the years, we’ve lost kids in the Roots of Music to gun violence. It’s not avoidable in this city, and many of the families in Roots of Music are directly impacted. I would say that all of the teachers at Roots of Music have lost students, and many of them have lost family to gun violence,” said Sakakeeny.

Amidst this grief, the Roots of Music provides its own brand of comfort. “In terms of emotional wellbeing, band culture is a very specific emotional register, and that’s about discipline and self-control. And, to a certain extent, showing that you need to go on despite whatever challenges you face – ‘The show must go on.’ This is not a place for deep reflection or self-care as an activity.”

The militant attitude fostered by marching bands helps teach its members perseverance, but sheer perseverance does not provide emotional relief. However, there is a deep sense of care present within this community. 

“When I go to Roots of Music I see a lot of love, to be frank. And you hear teachers talk about a love and a passion for what they do and their responsibility for the kids. [The] number one [thing], in terms of emotional wellbeing, is that you feel like you’re part of something and you feel you’re being looked after.”

“I’ll also say that Roots of Music has realized over time that many of the kids, and sometimes their parents and sometimes the teachers themselves, need professional mental health care. So we’ve partnered with the School of Social Work at Tulane to try and bring in volunteer social workers. And actually we’re just about to unroll a new full-time job for a social worker at the Roots of Music,” said Sakakeeny.

Through forged friendships, the care of band directors, and the introduction of social workers, the Roots of Music is focused on building social networks and connections as well as improved mental health. As a result of this, Roots of Music has “Had kids in just about every marching band in the city to be section leaders, assistant section leaders, or some high ranking or some high-ranking form in a band. Right now, we currently hold just about every high school band where Roots of Music kids hold a significant spot in the band, whether major section leader or assistant section leader or band captain.”

These trends also seem to continue after graduation. “I have one kid that went to graduate from Berkeley School of Music in Boston to go all the way to Berkeley City Music in Spain on a free scholarship. Bear was a sub-section leader at Southern University. [Another kid is] one of the first female section leaders in Southern band on a brass instrument.”

“I’m very proud of the kids that leave Roots containing the good things we try to instill. They don’t have to play music, but discipline and confidence is 90% of what I want kids to always have. It’s proven that having it can be a success,” said Tabb.

While the success of these kids creates an impressive track record, the Roots of Music’s program is not a miracle. It is a program borne of care and hard work, and nothing is perfect. “No activity can ensure that kids are safe and that their mental health needs are being attended to. Nothing can ensure that any kid or anyone can be protected from anything. The challenges that these kids face are surmountable, but not 100% of the time ever. That’s just not possible.”

“The Staff of Roots of Music is the first to tell you that they’re a Band-Aid on a very large problem. Because you can’t just expect that an after-school program that serves a couple hundred kids is going to make anything more than a dent in the problems that face every new generation,” Sakakeeny said.


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